Seagull Thoughts

Insights on connecting, communicating, and community by Mary Ann Siegel

Owls and Gunshots

Last night, about 3 a.m.,

I heard an owl hoot in the darkness

As I was working at the computer.

I Googled “Owls in Southeast, US” 

But found Canadian, Thai, and Nepali owls instead.

After listening to audios of hoot owls,

The sound was close enough

To send me to bed in peace.

But, as I was nearly asleep,

Two gunshots rang out into the night.

I turned over onto my back

So I could free my ears to listen,

And three more pops split the darkness.

Were they really gunshots?

I’ve heard them before at that time of night.

It’s possible —

I live a block from a subway station.

I turned back over to go to sleep,

Since this was not a problem I could solve at night,

Choosing to hold onto

The sound of the owl

Over the other option.

The truth is, I live where I do,

Because of its proximity to giant, green trees,

As well as rapid transit.

In my current brainstorming about what town to move to next,

And what to be close to,

I think I have just made my choice.


Words Cannot Describe…

…how good it feels to have two kids engaged, AND to spectacular people. I am too giddy and incoherent to make any sense but times like these need to be celebrated. Oh, my gosh, it’s an absolutely amazing feeling.

With joy, glee, expectation and acceptance of all that is to come!

Organizations Doing Disaster Relief in Haiti

After yesterday’s massive earthquake in Haiti in which over 100,000 are feared dead, I contacted The Community Foundation of Greater Atlanta for recommendations of organizations known for fast disaster relief. Here is their response:


DOCTORS WITHOUT BORDERS  I have heard they are gravely concerned about 800 missing staff members and have lost all three of their hospitals.



My heart bleeds. The poorest nation in the Western hemisphere did not need this to happen. Please give generously. 

My daughter is spreading the word about the following organizations recommended by CNN. She also recommends Plan, Path and ADRA, not on the CNN list below. Beware: post disaster relief work invites scams. She has made a gift to CARE and I am supporting Doctors Without Borders.

A note about the American Red Cross. I can no longer support them because of their leadership problems and the lack of follow-through I experienced while volunteering after Katrina. I do recommend the International Red Cross, however, and I have friends whom I respect highly who work for them.

Organizations providing basic needs: American Red Cross, World Vision, UNICEF USA, International Relief Teams, Save the Children, Catholic Relief Services, American Jewish World Services, Clinton Foundation, Yele Haiti, World Concern, Mercy Corps, Operation Blessing International, UN Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF)

Organizations providing shelter: Shelterbox, Habitat for Humanity International

Organizations providing medical aid: Direct Relief International, International Medical Corps, Medical Teams International, Operation USA, MAP International, The International Committee of the Red Cross, World Health Organization, Americares

Organizations providing food: World Food Programme, The Salvation Army, Compassion International, Food for the Poor

Lastly, please pray. THANK YOU.

UPDATE: Tracy Kidder, the author of Mountains Beyond Mountains which is about the work of Harvard’s Dr. Paul Farmer in Haiti, reports in The New York Times ( ) that Partners in Health, co-founded by Dr. Farmer, is one of the few organizations whose infrastructure is undamaged and still operating. I would think that this organization should be supported first: .


Elizabeth Gilbert Revisited

When the Agnes Scott calendar arrived in December, with a prominent notice that author Elizabeth Gilbert would be speaking on campus January 11th about her new book, I tossed it out. But after seeing additional notices, and being attracted to that lovely campus – used so often as a Hollywood set – my car made its way out onto streets still icy from last week’s storm. I had to go. After all, the campus is only a few blocks from my house and I have been curious to see how a popular writer handles a book tour.

The event was first come, first serve. I got there much too early but had good discussions about life, books, and my neighborhood with folks around me. There was good energy in the crowd, mostly feminist as one would expect on a women’s college campus. The audience was a third students, a third that looked like they were the age of moms of the students, and a third professor types.

Elizabeth Gilbert did not disappoint, despite arriving quite late. She was fast thinking, fast talking, bright, funny, confident, ever kind and charming, and much more animated than her reflective, thoughtful muse persona I’d seen in a TV interview. She read from what seemed to be the first chapter of Committed: A Skeptic Makes Peace With Marriage. I didn’t remember Eat, Pray, Love having quite so much sarcasm as this new book. But then the reviews have not been kind this go around. How easily could anyone top Eat, Pray, Love’ s success? Readers cannot help empathizing, if not identifying, with that bestseller’s plot: a broken heart and tears on the bathroom floor. Her repeated mention last night of that event demonstrated how terribly painful that divorce still is to her, and to her new husband who was avoiding marriage with her or anyone else for the same reason. But the plot of this new book, according to the reviews I have read, doesn’t elicit much empathy: woman meets the man of her dreams and is forced to marry him because of some vague rules about his Visa status imposed by Homeland Security. They still live happily ever after, just married. She talked about love in marriage as having “limits.” Love limits your freedom as much as it expands you. Not being able to take off and travel indefinitely is that limit she feels she must adhere to, to keep her new relationship with ‘Felipe’ strong and intact. I was interested that she said love relationships are full of “release and bond” cycles.

As a writer she is insightful and fun. As a speaker she is captivating, smart, gracious and compelling. I think her draw is the fact that she manages to turn lemons into lemonade in quite such adventurous and brave ways. She makes her life look enviable. Grabbing the audience from the first moment she strolled onstage – tall, straight and in hippy clothes – she held up her new book and pleaded with the audience to PLEASE buy it, not just this week, but right that minute, not so she could rival her own success with Eat, Pray, Love but to knock Sarah Palin off the best-seller charts! There were anti-Bush (W) comments as well to which the audience roared approvingly. Her humor is unbeatable even if it is, like her writing at times, a little contrived. Somehow I drew satisfaction that while not a literary genius, she is a solidly good writer who does a fine job of telling a story, and she decidedly deserves the praise she gets.

That acclaim is not universal, however, as I was waiting to see. Sure enough, a pert student stood up and asked how she would respond to critics who found her writing self-absorbed and narcissistic. Gilbert’s answer was direct and perfect, that she has just written two books about herself so, yes, she is narcissistic. But the argument is defensible, she said. How can one write a memoir otherwise? She says the people who use those labels for her probably do not like her books, pure and simple.

She gave a tip to writers: pick one person you want to write to, and your words will have universal meaning, as all very specific examples do and must. She wrote Eat, Pray, Love to a friend whom she thought would like to hear about her travels, and travails.

I admired her honest talk about her depression that lasted four to five years. And her worry that she might not end up in a happy relationship. How she always “looked over (her) shoulder to see if trouble would follow” but how she eventually learned not to worry.

An entertaining and inspiring evening. The expected energy did not disappoint, whether or not one agreed with her life, her character, her premise, or her promise. I wish her increasing success as a writer but even more so, in her very admirable personal journey.

Last Minute Gift Ideas

Several years ago I recommended Kiva, the international microlending fund, as an organization to support if your family makes a donation to a charity at Christmas. This has been something we have done over the years instead of giving gifts to family members, or ‘in honor of’ or ‘in memory of’ friends.

But recently there have been reports that Kiva lets donors down by investing donations in questionable ways. The money may not end up going to the particular individual that donors believe they are investing in. And because I no longer feel I want to support Kiva, I am amending my recommendation.

Nicholas Kristof’s column today in The New York Times lists several exciting new nonprofits I didn’t know about. Here is his link. Merry Christmas!

The Willingness to Be Embarrassed Leads to Success

I don’t usually write half-baked blogs to be finished later when I stumble across a concrete illustration from daily life to flesh out my point.

But I’m trying out new writing processes and this half-baked process even fits my subject matter – the value of stretching ourselves, getting outside the comfort zone we sometimes put ourselves in to avoid humiliating and embarrassing situations.

The actors in “Me and Orson Welles”, a new movie directed by Richard Linklater, were discussing on the Charlie Rose show today the risk and courage that actors must muster up. Claire Danes said “It’s always humiliating…Walking across a room is plenty embarrassing.” (Incidently, this comment underscored the look on her face and on mine when I spotted her on an escalator in Crate & Barrel in Soho in New York a few years ago.) Christian McKay added “There’s something watchable about the quality of vulnerability” when you have a story to tell.

What a lucky break that vulnerability can be appealing. Because making myself vulnerable is how I live and how I write about my life. Making a fool of myself – falling on my face – are moments that can be painful. Telling someone you love them feels vulnerable if not received well. Each happens whether or not I mean them to. But I can’t be satisfied with something half-hearted. I can’t not dare to do something a new way, seek a new way of being. That would be anything but half-baked or half-hearted. Courage is critical to the creative process: diving in, being willing to reveal, or flubbing up.  If we attract, please, or help someone along the way, our goal will be achieved. But the process must have an intrinsic pureness about it, regardless of outcome. And because of our sincere intention we have a better chance of succeeding. 

Isn’t this kind of commitment true of all the passionate initiatives we undertake and hope to succeed at, personal or career? Where we are grounded? Our source of pure, unadulterated, sincere and complete effort? I think so. Risking everything – the shirts off our backs, our hearts. Giving everything – the shirts off our backs, our hearts and our souls. Pretty wonderful when you think about it. Does anyone succeed by holding back? By editing oneself because of fear of censure, self or public? By living and feeling and breathing half-baked anythings?

Through it all, the one thing we must give completely is compassion – for everything and everyone we touch. When we give our whole heart we give our best selves, our whole selves – strong and vulnerable, shaking and steady. But when we only give half a heart – even by not being able to be present in that very moment – we risk losing our shirts and hurting others’ hearts. In short, we fail.

There must be hundreds of poems with this theme, and hundreds of monologues on Broadway alone. Good stuff. Embodying the same guts and gumption that allowed me to get myself out on that limb in the Outward Bound course 22 years ago, walking the balance beam six stories off the ground. My knees were shaking and my mouth was dry but I did it without even daring myself. Without committing through words. But my feet knew I was committed. They weren’t waiting for my command or the instructor’s that said, “GO!” One foot just moved forward to take that first step out on the beam. And the other one, not wanting to be left behind and deprived of action and fun, followed.

Aah, bliss. The bliss of knowing everything was risked, everything was given. With it comes the satisfaction of sleeping sweetly with the results. Let it come – success, failure, feeling in limbo, the whole nine yards. I am prepared. I am living in the moment with no thoughts about the future. Doing my best on this rainy, soggy, good for writing and good for risking day. Giving my all to everything I love doing.

Action is bliss. And so is acceptance of the consequences. Living knowing we tried is heaven. I can’t imagine living a half-baked, half-hearted life. Vulnerability, embarrassment, humiliation, and success, here I am. I’m alive!

Surrendering to the Power of the Moment

The word ‘surrender’ has been on my mind this past week. It’s hard to surrender the past. I get into trouble when I respond to people and situations with my mind, or ego. I want to let go of all I think will get me through difficult encounters, stop resisting, and just let things be.

At the beach last weekend with my daughter I carried along Eckhart Tolle’s Practicing the Power of Now. It was a gift to her from my older daughter. But when she said she had too much to read between now and Christmas and could I give it to her then, I started it. It’s one of my favorite books ever because it’s so timely.

After experiencing excruciating pain in a recent breakup – where I’d acknowledged to myself, as part of my healing, that words expressed to me felt not only unfair but cruel – I knew I needed to learn how to surrender more gracefully to the moment; notice my feelings and let my acceptance create a space for love and grace to enter. Surrendering to the power of the moment gets us out of our mind where negative thoughts reside; it doesn’t mean we don’t speak up for ourselves. The goal is to let Being become more important than Doing so that we shake off potential conflict.

Last night this new technique came alive and made sense when I watched the riveting documentary, Reporter, with my long time friend Lucy who asked me to be her guest at the fundraiser for The Atlanta Women’s Foundation. It was about The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s 2007 trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo to assess the situation there, and find an individual around whom he could state his case for aid. Through adventure after adventure, in village after village, the resilience and strength of the people balances their reality of desperate poverty, pillaged land, displacement, rape, starvation and disease. A continent of stark contrasts Africa is.

Kristof’s modus operandi of researching a story was the illustration I needed of how to surrender to the moment. I was already familiar with his quote, “In general, when you interview warlords or people heading militias you don’t get interesting answers unless you raise tough questions. You do that, knock wood and hope for the best.” He did that throughout, relentlessly, by inquiring, stating what he wanted, always moving, covering ground, waiting and listening until he got the facts he was looking for.

Kristof took tremendous risk in trusting the power of the moment. After his hoped for but dreaded interview with a militia warlord, he and his crew were invited for dinner at the compound. The situation was dire. They felt they couldn’t refuse but their safety demanded that they leave early enough to travel the four hours back home before dark. However, they gave in and not only experienced one of the best meals of their stay in Africa but also received protection: the warlord sent armed guards to accompany them, along with relaying commands to his militias along the road that the reporter and his crew were not to be attacked. It was tense to watch, perhaps because I’d been thinking about my own habits of resistance; my need to move on and not linger to witness the result, even though it could be wondrous instead of disastrous. 

I admit I have difficulty in surrendering – inviting or creating space for grace to enter. But there’s no reason I can’t become more open, like Kristof, to a new presence or way of Being. Miraculous things had happened during his time with the warlord. The interview had produced the statement that rape was permissible in time of war as well as a teenage fighter’s plea for forgiveness for his wartime atrocities. And Kristof’s crew had been given protection on their journey home. Could these things have transpired without his having surrendered to the power of the moment? If a reporter could achieve his goals with strangers in time of war, there was hope for me in my most meaningful relationships.

How we negotiate our conversations – a minefield for so many reasons – is dependent upon our ability to get out of our heads and allow big stuff to happen on the spot; inexplicable stuff, good stuff, stuff beyond our control. Like Kristof, we can only set things in motion and then let go and hope for the best. Though learning this process comes on blind faith at first, I trust that good things will come out of my surrendering to the warlord that sometimes lives inside me, and the warlords outside that talk to me harshly and heartlessly. Perhaps a braver spirit and example on my part could inspire the warlords around me to not feel threatened.

My receptivity to a new way of Being alternates between being terribly scary and terribly exciting. Yet every time I turn on the automatic pilot switch, I discover there is help along the road  in the dead of night when I least expect it. The protectors I find the most helpful come unarmed. They just bear witness to my Being. And that gift is everything because it inspires me to give it to myself.